I’m not a follower of royal news, certainly not when it involves Mickey Mouse accusations of family racism, and even more when our constitutionally constrained king chooses to speak at COP28, discarding the advice he received for the last such bash, that it would be political to attend, and therefore contradictory to his role to represent the whole British people and avoid politics.
He would perhaps argue that the Climate Collapse (the latest apocalyptic term for normal weather) is beyond politics. And certainly he’d be right in the sense that the entire political establishment and the Organs of the State have shut down all dissenting voices from the public. Note that “the public” in this case includes not simply ‘oi polloi in the pubs and supermarkets, but scientists, economists, broadcasters, parliamentarians and other members of those same Organs questioning the alarmist ideology. So the issue is apolitical only in the sense that the suppression of Jews and Christians is apolitical in hardline Islamic states, or immigration in Ireland.
But critics with the fortitude to watch COP28 noted an overtly political message from King Charles entirely unrelated to saving the planet, when he spoke. That was his wearing of a tie and pocket handkerchief bearing the symbols of the Greek State. It is naive to suppose that he was simply paying homage to his Greek ancestry through Prince Philip: that is not what you do in an international forum where you are only speaking because you are the Head of State of Britain.
No, given the very recent re-eruption of the dispute over the ownership of the Elgin Marbles, he could only have been giving a message to the world that he privately agrees with the Greek government’s position. Only it wasn’t private, was it? Not only that, but the gesture contradicted the reportedly petulant stand of Charles’s chief minister, Rishi Sunak (never to my knowledge sporting an Indian flag on his tie on foreign missions) against the return of the Marbles. And if that were not the intention, it was the predictable inference.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the issue is politically controversial in this country, and that the actual custodian of the Marbles, the British Museum, argues that they should stay here. I gather that a majority of the nation thinks they should be returned to Athens. Whilst I doubt that most Britons have even seen them, let alone studied the cases made by the opposing factions, I’m inclined to agree as someone who has visited the Parthenon twice and received a large tome about the Acropolis as a Christmas present a few years back.
But that is not the point. It is not simply that Prince Charles’s rather unsubtle display of his personal political opinion violates his role as constitutional monarch. It would violate even the role of a king before the Restoration. The Stuart Divine Right of Kings to Rule was a theoretical aberration on the historical role of monarchs, if it meant simply that the king had the power to follow whatever policy he liked. It had long been established principle, if often not consistent practice, that the king of England ruled only under the Law of God, which included the Common Law established by universal principles of justice. What that Law entailed, whether in terms of enacting royal business at home or pursuing foreign policy, was established through the counsel of those chosen because of their wisdom, legal knowledge and so on.
It was certainly the case that he had the right to discard such counsel, in which case (assuming his actions were not so outrageous as to lead the great and good to rebel) his word was law. But if the Lords, the chief ministers, and he had hammered out a policy on, say, adopting Protestantism as the country’s religion, it would not have been in order for the king to wear a “God Bless His Holiness the Pope” badge on a State visit to Paris. There is little evidence that even the most cynical or headstrong rulers scorned their personal accountability to God, and if they did, the nobles had the money, weapons and men to remind them of their duty.
It would certainly have been seen as a sign of English weakness were it known – as it now is – that the King disagreed publicly with his Prime Minister. It’s not so much that the world, particularly the Greeks but also the enemies of Britain, now knows that if they push the propaganda for the return of the Elgin Marbles, Greece will certainly get them back, but that Britain’s establishment is known to be at war with itself, and so the nation can be safely sidelined as a significant power.
But perhaps, as my wife suggested, King Charles was advised on his choice of dress accessories. Perhaps Rishi Sunak’s defence of the retention of the Marbles is a blind to pacify the jingoistic mindset of the unwashed masses (who after all lack the cosmopolitan viewpoint of the chief ministers of England, Scotland, Ireland, London, and so on). Or perhaps Sunak is Prime Minister in name only, and the real power lies with those who placed him in office as a malleable puppet without anyone electing him? Such machinations, of course, would also mean that the King is not representing the people of Britain as a whole, but some oligarchical constituency within it.
Either way, it’s not how a constitutional monarchy should operate, raising grave doubts as to its legitimacy. A political monarch, being just another politician, thereby voids his constitutional role, and so his right to a public position. His Majesty would be well advised not to be, like Aethelred, badly advised.